Martin Seligman, Positive Psychology

In his early work, Seligman proposed a shift in the practice of psychology from focusing on difficulties and ways to ‘solve’ them, to instead focusing on the things that were already positive and finding ways to increase those. He called this new approach Positive Psychology. Seligman proposed that the ultimate goal of Positive Psychology is the attainment of happiness and life satisfaction. He believed that happiness could be analyzed into three measurable elements: positive emotion, engagement and meaning.

 Seligman has since expanded his study to wellbeing. With the consideration that individuals have experiences that, while important, may not fit with the idea of ‘happiness’, he re-envisioned the goal of Positive Psychology as ‘flourishing’. Seligman’s Wellbeing Theory is the result. It is comprised of five measurable elements, using the acronym PERMA:

  • Positive Emotion – which includes happiness and life satisfactions, along with a number of others like comfort, pleasure and warmth
  • Engagement – which is about ‘flow’, the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity or experience. Engagement, for Seligman also includes the notion of using a person’s highest strengths and talents
  • Relationships – or positive relationships, understanding that social connections drive and impact nearly everything we do.
  • Meaning – which Seligman defines as “belonging to and serving something that … is bigger than the self”.  This is distinguished from a more personal interpretation of something that is meaningful to an individual , which would be categorized as ‘positive emotion’.
  • Achievement – is connected to the ideas of success, winning, accomplishment and mastery for its own sake.  

As Falk explains in his work on wellbeing, it is a state that is about achieving balance among the elements, and it is always in flux. For Seligman, each of these elements is pursued for its own merits, separated from each of the others, and that each is measured separately. Collectively each element is a part of a larger theory.


Seligman, Martin E.P. Seligman (2011). Flourish. Atria paperbacks